An epic piece of work that makes very bold choices.
(Pushkin Press, 2021)
Review by Tomiwa Owolade
Over the past five years, two twentieth-century intellectuals, equally comfortable in continental Europe and New York, have assumed totemic status on the most vexed issues of our time. The first is James Baldwin on race. The second is Hannah Arendt on populism. Can anything new be said about these two figures?
Ann Heberlein’s biography of Arendt, On Love & Tyranny, does not claim to be definitive. At less than three hundred pages, it is by its very form a selective account of a varied and complex life.
Crisply translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies, Heberlein’s biography is interested in two elements of Arendt’s life and work: love and evil.
Arendt was born in Königsberg — the birthplace of Kant — into a secular, affluent and cosmopolitan Jewish family. Her reading during her youth was expansive, from ‘poetry and fiction to Kant and Greek mythology’. She was also interested in theology, and studied the subject alongside philosophy at the University of Marburg. Her doctoral thesis, when she later attended the University of Heidelberg, was on Saint Augustine’s concept of love.
The most significant personal element of Arendt’s university years was her affair with Martin Heidegger. Despite their shared passion for philosophy and classics, they were nevertheless an odd couple: Arendt was Jewish and Heidegger was a Nazi.
Arendt is most known for her analysis of evil — something she confronted head on in the 1930s. As a member of the Zionist Federation of Germany, she alerted the international media to the persecution of Jews. And when she moved to France in 1933, to escape persecution from the Nazis, she helped many Jewish young people in Europe migrate to Palestine. Heberlein doesn’t spend much time discussing the idea for which Arendt is most famous for: the banality of evil. The emphasis of her book is love.
In 1930s France, she befriended the Marxist intellectual Walter Benjamin. It was also in France that she met Heinrich Blücher — her second husband and life partner. He came from a working-class background and was an autodidact. And theirs was a relationship of equals: ‘Hannah was not his muse,’ Heberlein writes, ‘the way she had been with previous lovers; she and Heinrich completed each other.’
In 1940, after Germany invaded France, she was imprisoned in the Camp Gurs internment camp. Arendt later escaped, and in May 1941 she and Blücher, both barely able to speak English, moved to America. Arendt was a stateless person between 1933 and 1951.
It was while living in America that she wrote her most influential works: The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. It was also in America that she expanded on the idea that she inherited from Saint Augustine: Amor Mundi.
Amor Mundi, Heberlein writes, ‘is an attitude, a direction of travel that focuses on forgiveness, acceptance, and reconciliation. In order to live in a world where the Holocaust was possible, we must understand and accept what happened, just as we must understand what is happening today.’ In short: ‘We must be able to love the world as it is, in all its imperfection.’
Heberlein’s nimble and fascinating jaunt through Arendt’s life and work shows that, like Baldwin, Arendt wanted to transform the world through love — and to do this means concretely recognising its imperfections. She embodied the tensions of someone caught in the political and philosophical vortex of Europe in the middle of the last century.